Most of the piñon trees around my house have open cones this year, some with the dark brown pine nuts still ensconced within. I hadn’t noticed them until I talked to Rick Winslow, a wildlife biologist with the NM game department, about a bear scat filled with piñon shells I found in the yard–turns out bears love the buttery nuts as much as the squirrels and jays. Winslow mentioned there had been lots of piñon in the area for the last couple of years, which didn’t fit with what I thought I knew about New Mexico’s state tree.
I had heard the piñon pine produced once every seven years, but it really depends on the weather, how much moisture we get. The recent years of drought have killed some of the trees, another setback. But in the last couple of years with closer to normal rainfall, they have responded by putting on cones.
Bumper crops are few and far between (that explains the seven year theory), but this year it’s a “bull market for piñon in Northern New Mexico” according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
The last big crop we had was in 2005. I remember being surprised that autumn by a flock of boisterous Clark’s nutcrackers appearing out of nowhere, taking up residence in the pine outside my kitchen window. The sleek white birds with black wings crashed the party, scaring off the piñon jays, usually the bossiest birds in the trees. Once the cones were empty, they left as quickly as they came. No sign of them yet this year.
Last week I started to gather a few of the nuts in a small bowl and spread a bedsheet on the ground and shook the branches to release those still in cones. I was hoping to accumulate enough to roast for my sister-in-law, Kelli, who is an aficionado. The few I cracked open with my teeth (not recommended) were dried out and brown, not the plump, light-colored nuts I was expecting so I abandoned my efforts.
Maybe there are some good ones out there, but I’ll leave those for the industrious chipmunks to discover. I’ll be checking out our local roadside vendors or ordering from New Mexico Piñon Nut Company‘s online store. Sold unshelled, it’s a challenge to extract the tasty nuts. Wiki-How offers a few different techniques. The one that looks most promising involves a can opener. I’ll let you know how it works.